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Inequalities in Human Development in the 21st Century
by UN Development Programme (UNDP), agencies
11:14am 10th Dec, 2019
The 2019 Human Development Report sets out how the unequal distribution of education, health and living standards limit countries’ progress. By these measures, 20 per cent of human development progress was lost through inequalities in 2018.
“This Human Development Report sets out how systemic inequalities are deeply damaging our society and why,” said Achim Steiner, the UNDP Administrator.
“Inequality is not just about how much someone earns compared to their neighbour. It is about the unequal distribution of wealth and power: the entrenched social and political norms that are bringing people onto the streets today, and the triggers that will do so in the future unless something changes. Recognizing the real face of inequality is a first step; what happens next is a choice that each leader must make.”
The report, “Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: inequalities in human development in the 21st Century”, looks at but also goes beyond simply measuring income disparities. Inequality begins even before birth and can accumulate, amplified by differences in health and education, into adulthood. Policies to address it, therefore, must include investing in young children’s learning, health and nutrition.
Countries with a more productive workforce tend to have a lower concentration of wealth at the top, for example, enabled by policies that support stronger unions, set the right minimum wage, create a path from the informal to the formal economy, invest in social protection, and attract women to the workplace.
Policies to enhance productivity alone are not enough, however. The growing market power of employers is linked to a declining income share for workers. Antitrust and other policies are key to address the imbalancesof market power.
Public spending and fair taxation: the report argues that taxation cannot be looked at on its own, but it should be part of a system of policies, including public spending on health, education, and alternatives to a carbon-intensive lifestyle.
More and more, domestic policies are framed by global corporate tax discussions, highlighting the importance of new principles for international taxation, to help ensure fair play, avoid a race to the bottom in corporate tax rates, especially as digitalization brings new forms of value to the economy, and to detect and deter tax evasion.
Averages often hide what is really going on in society, highlights the report, and while they can be helpful in telling a larger story, much more detailed information is needed to create policies to tackle inequality effectively. This is true in tackling the multiple dimensions of poverty, in meeting the needs of those being left furthest behind such as people with disabilities, and in promoting gender equality and empowerment.
Based on current trends, it will take 202 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity alone, cites the report. While the silence on abuse is breaking, the glass ceiling for women to progress is not. Instead, it is a story of bias and backlash.
For example, at the very time when progress is meant to be accelerating to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, the report’s 2019 Gender Inequality Index says progress actually is slowing.
A new “social norms index” in the report says that in half of the countries assessed, gender bias has grown in recent years. About fifty per cent of people across 77 countries, said they thought men make better political leaders than women, while more than 40 per cent felt that men made better business executives.
Therefore, policies that address underlying biases, social norms and power structures are key. For example, policies to balance the distribution of care, particularly for children, are crucial, says the report, given that much of the difference in earning between men and women throughout their lifecycle is generated before the age of 40.
Looking beyond today, the report asks how inequality may change in future, looking particularly at two seismic shifts that will shape life up to the 22nd century.
The climate crisis: As a range of global protests demonstrate, policies crucial to tackling the climate crisis like putting a price on carbon can be mis-managed, increasing perceived and actual inequalities for the less well-off, who spend more of their income on energy-intensive goods and services than their richer neighbours.
If revenues from carbon pricing are ‘recycled’ to benefit taxpayers as part of a broader social policy package, the authors argue, then such policies could reduce rather than increase inequality.
Technological transformation: Technology, including in the form of renewables and energy efficiency, digital finance and digital health solutions, offers a glimpse of how the future of inequality may break from the past, if opportunities can be seized quickly and shared broadly.
There is historical precedent for technological revolutions to carve deep, persistent inequalities – the Industrial Revolution not only opened up the great divergence between industrialized countries and those who depended on primary commodities; it also launched production pathways that culminated in the climate crisis.
The change that is coming goes beyond climate, says the report, but a ‘new great divergence’, driven by artificial intelligence and digital technologies, is not inevitable.
The report recommends for example, investment in lifelong learning to help workers adjust or change to new occupations, and international consensus on how to tax digital activities – all part of building a new, secure and stable digital economy as a force for convergence, not divergence, in human development.
Thomas Piketty. Co-Director at the World Inequality Lab: “The UNDP Human development report offers a broad and innovative approach to inequality. It includes for the first time a transparency index regarding inequality statistics, covering different sources including administrative data. Even though everyone is concerned about inequality, not all governments are providing enough information about it. In fact, what this transparency index is showing is that we simply do not have enough data. We need relevant information for a meaningful debate.”
Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies of Singapore: “The Report demonstrates both the seriousness and complexity of the challenge of inequality. It gives us a broader understanding of the factors shaping unequal life chances, from birth and through life. That wider picture is critical to mitigating inequality on a lasting basis, and achieving fair and inclusive growth.”
Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica (2010-2014): “The report looks at inequality beyond income, beyond averages and beyond today. Beyond income because any assessment must consider money, but it must also go beyond to understand other inequalities, for instance in health and educations. Beyond averages, because they are not enough to capture the complexities of inequality. And beyond today because it is important to capture how inequalities will interact with the two major shift that will shape the 21th century: technological transformation and climate change.
Oct. 2019
2 billion people globally live on just 3 dollars a day, by the Global Call to Action Against Poverty
The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, as every 17th October, calls us again to strengthen our commitment to change our world and enable millions of people to lead different lives.
Around 2 billion people globally live on just 3 dollars a day. Around 3.4 billion people live on 5.5 dollars a day. Almost half of the world population live every day in a condition that the majority of the citizens of the North would not be able to face. Half of the world’s population!
Can we just wait and see? Even if we renew this call every year, we’ll never be tired of repeating that we need a different effort. We need justice and we need it now.
Can we just place blame? No, we want policies! Policies to transform our world now: we want fair rules for trade, effective rules for financial markets, fiscal justice to finance redistribution, universal social protection, health and education, water and food for all, sustainable and decent work for all, in a world that cares to put human persons, their dignity and intelligence at the core, instead of greed, egoism and fear.
These are the proposals we raised in the People’s Assembly Declaration, when we met in September in New York, with a huge number of organizations and movements of civil society from all over the world.
Our call could be seen as naïve. We know that some powerful people are even ready to use weapons to fight the poor, as is currently happening in the Middle East. But we know as well that we are the heirs, with a lot of friends in the world, of the struggles against slavery, injustice and war in the past centuries. Struggles that our mothers and our fathers together won. These legacies are the jewels feeding our hope.
GCAP – the Global Call for Action Against Poverty – is calling again to fight poverty, inequalities and injustice in all their forms. We do it chanting again that We Shall Overcome.
Oct. 2019
One in nine face hunger: Inequality drives global figure to 10-year high
For the third year in a row, hunger and malnutrition are on the rise, back to levels last seen nearly 10 years ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food told the UN General Assembly.
Today, Hilal Elver said, one in nine people face hunger and 2 billion people are food insecure.
This lack of progress in the realization of the right of everyone to food confirms that states have struggled to fulfil their promise to “leave no one behind,” as embedded in the 2030 Agenda. Yet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do provide a roadmap for adopting policy reforms and expand social and legal protections for the most vulnerable groups.
“The Sustainable Development Goals, are a potentially transformative tool to advance the realization of the right to food, as well as other economic, social and cultural rights,” the expert said.
Accomplishing the goals first and foremost requires tackling the inequalities that have undermined the right to food and left too many behind.
“A human rights based vision of the Goals gives high priority to the more than 2.5 billion people who depend on agriculture for both subsistence and their livelihoods. It also requires dispersing wealth to close the inequality gap within and among countries and between individuals,” said Elver.
Implementing fiscal policies that redistribute wealth will help reallocate power and promote greater access to productive resources within food systems, especially for the world’s poor, as redistribution via taxation or reallocation of existing spending may resolve over 75 percent of global poverty.
The Special Rapporteur also called on States to continue to expand access to social protection systems, saying that less than half of the world’s population is effectively protected by legally enforceable social protections and that coverage is often limited by inadequate implementation.
Ensuring that no-one is left behind also requires eliminating the structural discrimination that interferes with the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, Elver said.
“Women and girls, youth, peasants, rural communities, indigenous peoples and migrants face persistent discrimination and increased vulnerability to hunger in disaster and conflict settings. States must use the Goals as a blueprint for actively engaging and empowering groups that have been historically left behind.”
The global agenda for change cannot be achieved if the right to food is not guaranteed. States must trade in market-driven policies for human rights based solutions and allocate sufficient resources to support the implementation of the Goals, Elver said.

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